In 1997, the most severe flood Fargo, N.D., residents had ever experienced inundated three miles of farmland along the Red River, and Public Works Director of Operations Dennis Walaker was feeling the heat.
Although sandbags would ultimately save much of the city from the record crest of 39.5 feet, rumors were circulating that the 15-mgd wastewater treatment plant had exceeded capacity and that the city's water was contaminated. Walaker also faced sharp criticism from his employees, who complained about learning of the city's flood response from the local media.
Though the plant was running at capacity and an illegal discharge wasn't imminent, Walaker scrambled to separate truth from rumor during press conferences.
Seven years later and more than 900 miles to the southeast, Louisville, Ky., Public Works Director Jim Adkins found himself in a similar position when a winter storm dumped 18 inches of snow and freezing rain in 24 hours. “The storm of the century” was one of the worst emergencies the city of 539,000 had experienced.
About 170 vehicles were deployed to priority and secondary routes, dropping 13,000 tons of salt on 2,300 miles of roads around the clock. Still, the media became critical. Reporters commented on air about their own streets not being plowed and that city trucks were nowhere to be found. For five days, Adkins' efforts to oversee his department's response were interrupted by media calls. At one point he conducted 35 interviews in 12 hours.
After the storm, the department revised its communications plan for weather-related events. Now, e-mail alerts are sent to local media four times daily — before each major television newscast — highlighting the progress of response efforts.
“It transforms coverage,” says Allison Martin, a former television reporter who was hired as deputy communications director to coordinate messaging during future events. “The media calls dry up.”
SAME MESSAGE, DIFFERENT AVENUES
It's all about being proactive and communicating preparations before severe weather hits. Also, communicating directly to the media isn't the only way to manage the message.
A devastating wind storm from Hurricane Ike knocked out power to 300,000 Louisville residents for up to two weeks last September. In its wake, the city's Public Works' Planning Division created a layer for the city's GIS map that divides the city's 386 square miles into 76 equally sized sections. As soon as crews reported an area of the grid was clear of downed trees and other debris, the division updated the map, which residents can access on the city's Web site.
So when an ice storm hit four months later, the department was prepared to deal with inquiries about its cleanup efforts. More than 200 public works and private contractor employees worked 12 hours a day for up to seven consecutive days to open a dozen roads. Even so, the city's 311 call center fielded up to 60 complaints daily.
Ordinarily, the complaints would have caught the attention of local media, which in turn would have taken advantage of the “gotcha” moment in their coverage. “It's hard to explain to 700,000 people at the same time that you're doing everything you can,” says Kerri Richardson, another former television reporter who replaced Martin last year. But this time, operators referred residents and journalists to the online map.
At least one member of the media used it to generate articles about the city's recovery process.
“It drilled a couple stories about where the effort was at, especially after it became clear that there was no way the cleanup was going to be done by the Kentucky Derby on May 2,” says Dan Klepal, metro government reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal.
His stories triggered an online debate among readers about who was ultimately responsible for cleaning up: the city or residents. Public works crews were confronted with greater-than-anticipated volumes when residents began hauling debris from their yards to the curb, extending the deadline for cleanup well beyond initial estimates of a month or two. The last of the debris was hauled away at the end of May.
Richardson was in regular contact with the city's current public works director, Ted Pullen, throughout the day during the effort. She sent out weekly progress updates and handled most media calls directly. “We knew we could count on the e-mails, so we weren't bugging them at 3:15 p.m. worried that we weren't going to get our numbers,” says Klepal of the statistics — such as tons of debris removed daily — he incorporated into his stories.
Rumors take root when there's a vacuum of information, so get the news out as soon and as often as possible, says Rudy Nydegger, professor of psychology and management at the Graduate College of Union University in Schenectady, N.Y.
“With natural disasters, people feel out of control and look for explanations,” he says. “They like to grab onto the scary, dramatic news and be the first ones to spread it.” He advises public works employees to call their media contacts with bits of information as soon as they have updates. “It's like giving them a scoop,” he says.
ACCOMMODATE THEIR SCHEDULES
There were no rumors of contaminated drinking water during this year's flood, the worst in Fargo's history as the Red River crested at 40.82 feet — more than a foot higher than in 1997. To preempt misinformation devolving into rumors, public works provided up-to-date information from those leading the flood response.
For two-and-a-half weeks, the department used the city's cable access channel to televise a daily 8 a.m. meeting that became known as the “early morning show.” Two dozen heads of public agencies, including city departments, the school district, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, took turns sharing prepared comments about the status of recovery efforts. Journalists were allowed to attend the meetings for background information but couldn't ask questions until a press conference that followed at 9 a.m.
“It was televised live before the 9 a.m. press conference so we could communicate directly with the public,” says Dennis Walaker, who was elected mayor in 2006 after serving as public works director of operations for 17 years. The procedure allows the department to control the message while accommodating the needs of the media, which is key to maintaining a healthy relationship.
In Louisville, media now know to expect two daily press conferences — at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.— during severe weather. “We try to keep the mayor's and public works director's availability down to one or two times a day,” Richardson says.
Overland Park, Kan., gets hit with everything from wind storms and tornados to floods and snow storms. A 19-year veteran of the city, Maintenance Division Superintendent Dave Bergner knows timing is crucial to managing the tone of media coverage.
“We put out information about an impending storm 12 to 72 hours in advance of it,” he says of his work with the city's public information officer. “We tell the media, ‘Here's what we're anticipating, and here's what we plan to do about it.'” Department supervisors meet regularly to discuss strategies, he says, “so the message is consistent when the media contact us.”
HUMANIZE THE MESSAGE
There's a saying that reporters know a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing.
Journalists are constantly thrown into new situations, so it falls upon public works employees to educate them and put situations into context for readers and viewers. Often, that can be accomplished just as well by rank-and-file employees as directors and supervisors.
“Your employees get the message out basically unfiltered and with a real face. They tell personal stories,” says Louisville's Martin. Interviews should be on location, such as at the salt dome or in the field during cleanup after a storm.
Use interviews with crew members to the department's advantage. “Their message is basically, ‘You may get mad at us for not quickly responding during a snow storm, but our families have to use the same streets as you do, and we're doing the best job we can,'” says Overland Park's Bergner. He allows television cameras and reporters inside vehicles to see street conditions from the driver's perspective.
Even if a department or community employs a public information officer, expect to work directly with reporters when they're covering particularly technical issues.
“The communications people can deal with the media, but they don't understand the storm sewer system; they don't understand the drinking water system,” Walaker says. “Many times the media need to talk to the people who really know about that.”
But whether it's a supervisor or an employee, common sense goes a long way.
“Be honest. Don't hype it up, but don't underplay it, either,” Bergner advises. “If there's a question you can't accurately answer, just say you don't know and that you'll have to check on it.”
That transparency builds respect, which builds trust. “The media have a job, and you have to understand that,” Walaker says. “If you accommodate them, you'll always have a good relationship.”
- Send regular e-mail alerts to local media.
- Discuss strategies with department supervisors beforehand to keep a consistent message.
- Report updates early and often.
- Be honest and straightforward.